Conservatives have coalesced behind tea party themes of reducing spending and cutting the federal deficit, creating a political powerhouse that has championed those causes on Capitol Hill.
Now, the nation's largest affiliation of unions is trying to create a political alliance to more effectively counter the right's successes.
As it kicks off its convention in Los Angeles this weekend, the 12-million-member AFL-CIO says it is aligning itself with progressive groups such as the NAACP, the Sierra Club and the National Council of La Raza to strengthen the left's political power. The effort aims to create a strong voice within the Democratic Party while at the same time restoring the power of labor in a country increasingly unfriendly to unions.
It's unique because it forces the labor movement to recognize its weaknesses in a country in which union membership has slipped to 11%, from 35% in the 1950s.
"We have to create an economic, political and legislative climate where our members can succeed," AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka said at a meeting Thursday at the Los Angeles Times. "Our opposition is well-financed and determined.… We're too small to do it alone."
The move comes as nontraditional labor groups gain members, organizing strikes among workers at Wal-Mart and fast-food restaurants. Trumka says he wants to harness the energy of those workers, as well as others frustrated in an economy in which wages are stagnant.
"Some people see this as a way to bolster the frustrated forces of the progressive coalition — turning anger and frustration into reaction, and not just reaction at the ballot box," said Mark Brenner, director of Labor Notes, an independent labor group and magazine.
The effort also highlights a split between the Obama administration and the labor movement that has grown since the AFL-CIO helped reelect President Obama in 2012.
Many in labor were disappointed when Obama did not step in when Michigan restricted collective bargaining in December; more were frustrated by the Affordable Care Act, which imposes heavy penalties for some union healthcare plans.
"This will be a message to the Democratic Party — we're bigger than you think," said Nelson Lichtenstein, a UC Santa Barbara labor professor. "This will create a more organic alliance, to say, just getting the president elected is not enough."
Trumka says the new alliance will work on issues such as immigration reform, voting rights and universal healthcare.
"Only by combining together all these progressive groups are we going to be able to make the changes necessary to make the middle class stronger," he said.
But the idea of creating a progressive alliance has inherent problems, which Trumka is already facing.
Some internal groups disagree with labor's new allies on important issues — construction-related affiliates support the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, for instance, while the Sierra Club opposes it. And some member unions say the AFL-CIO is spending too much time building alliances and not enough time working for its members.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union, for example, cut its formal ties with the AFL-CIO, withdrawing its 59,000 members from the affiliation Aug. 29. In a letter explaining the group's withdrawal, ILWU President Robert McEllrath complained that other AFL-CIO affiliates were warring with the ILWU, and that the AFL-CIO was not stepping in to help.
"ILWU members are concerned that the AFL-CIO may be abandoning the principle of solidarity and allowing unions to raid each other and trample over long-established jurisdictional lines," said Craig Merrilees, an ILWU spokesman.
Healthcare is another issue of contention among affiliates.
The AFL-CIO supported Obama's efforts to pass the Affordable Care Act, but the act's impending implementation is putting some union healthcare plans at risk. A white paper by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, an AFL-CIO member, warned members that the Affordable Care Act put in jeopardy multi-employer healthcare plans, which many of its members use.
"The IBEW cannot afford to sit on the sidelines as the ACA threatens to harm our members," the paper says.
These complaints highlight the difficulties that Trumka and the AFL-CIO face as it tries to form stronger political alliances with other groups, while at the same time maintaining the strength of its unions.
"You can't completely abandon other members," said Brenner, the Labor Notes director. "Some say they have gone a little too far in trying to build solidarity and have not played enough of a traffic cop role at the AFL-CIO."
Neither should the AFL-CIO give up on collective bargaining as it makes wider alliances with progressive groups, said Julius Getman, the author of "Restoring the Power of Unions: It Takes a Movement." AFL-CIO affiliates have successfully organized workers in the culinary and hospitality industries in the West, and the union should not forget those successes.
"Unions can be effective, but their primary technique will have to remain collective bargaining," Getman said. "They're heading for disaster if they change that."
In an interview, Trumka said the AFL-CIO hasn't "given up on the nuts and bolts" of running an affiliation. After all, he said, since the last AFL-CIO convention four years ago, the affiliation has brought in 2.5 million new members, including home healthcare workers, an alliance of taxicab drivers and a group of domestic workers.
The strength of those new members, when linked with the strength of other organizations, could help bolster the union, Trumka said.
It's an idea that excites Judy Beard, a member of the American Postal Workers Union who traveled to Los Angeles from Virginia for the convention.
"Too often we're isolated on issues," she said. By coming together, "we can help each other.… There is power in numbers, and the labor movement and other organizations understand that."
The AFL-CIO's efforts at building alliances have already proved successful, said Jotaka Eaddy, senior advisor to the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People president and senior director of voting rights. In New York, for example, an alliance that included a teachers union affiliated with the AFL-CIO and the NAACP helped draw attention to problems with the New York Police Department's stop-and-frisk policy, under which officers stop and search people in high-crime areas suspected of engaging in criminal activity.
"You don't generally see these groups align, but I think the issues in our country are far greater than any small differences different organizations may have," Eaddy said.